New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)

New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:


Original text below:

Yes, you read that headline correctly – this is not a joke, and not some mis-interpretation of the upcoming SkyTrain changes on October 22nd. TransLink is going to reduce Expo Line service frequencies, at all times of day, on October 22nd.

skytrain-oct-22
The SkyTrain as it will operate after October 22nd. The Expo Line is shown in blue.

The Expo Line, the original SkyTrain corridor extending to King George Station in Surrey, is the busiest line on our SkyTrain rapid transit system. After poking around on TransLink’s website along with forumers on discussion boards, I made a startling discovery about the upcoming October 22 SkyTrain changes. It appears that, for no apparent reason, TransLink is sneaking a reduction in service frequencies at all times of day on the Expo Line, and this is not being communicated with the public.

I initially confirmed this when I and some fellow online forumers on SkyscraperPage, CPTDB and others were looking into SkyTrain’s schedule changes. The operating schedules for SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express can be accessed through TransLink’s “bus schedules” page by typing in corresponding numbers in the 900s. The current Expo and Millennium Lines were using numbers 999 and 996, but we discovered that the numbers 992 and 991 were being utilized for a brand new schedule effective starting in October.

This schedule showed that SkyTrain frequencies were clearly being subject to a decrease at basically all times of day – not just the peak service hours. Mid-day and evening service (currently at every 6 minutes) and weekday day-time service (currently at every 7 minutes) would be operated less frequently at every 7.5 minutes. Some parts of the schedule have seen a minor service increase from 10 to 8 minutes, but this is happening at parts of the day where the issue of frequency is not as critical – such as late at night on weekdays and weekends.

skytrain-decrease
Wait times at Surrey SkyTrain stations will be 7-8 minutes after October 22nd, compared to the current 6 minutes, during mid-day periods.

TransLink representatives at a recent media event had commented that passengers would be waiting an “extra 10 seconds at peak times” (see: report by Jeff Nagel on Surrey Leader), although trains would be consolidated into longer consists (i.e. 6-car Mark I, 4-car Mark II or Mark III) make up for this and ensure a high capacity.

However, the actual schedule change I have uncovered shows that the actual increase in wait time is closer to 25 seconds on the Expo main-line inbound from Columbia Station (108 -> 133 seconds), and will be as high as 38 seconds on average on the King George branch in Surrey (162 -> 200 seconds). In addition, in a move that has by far been completely unannounced, passengers will be waiting up to an additional 1.5 minutes on each branch during mid-days and other off-peak periods.

TransLink has never confirmed this explicitly during Q&A sessions for the October 22 changes, but has recently quietly confirmed the change on its SkyTrain schedules page, which are now showing a “Current” and “Oct. 22” schedule that reflects the proposed change on the “bus schedules” page. For more info, see the page:

TransLink > SkyTrain Schedules > Expo Line

Frequencies will change as follows, according to TransLink’s website:

Expo Line – Waterfront to King George
Time of Day Frequency before Oct 22nd Frequency after Oct 22nd
Peak Hours (6-9AM, 3-6PM) 2-4 min. 2-5 min.
Mid-day (9AM-3PM) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Evening (6PM onwards) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Late night 8-10 min. 8 min.
Early Sat/Sun 8-10 min. 8 min.
Sat, Sun/Holidays 7-10 min. 7-8 min.

The changes in service frequencies will mean longer waits for trains at almost all times of day, making the Expo Line less reliable and less versatile to its many riders. It will also result in more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms – as longer waits between trains means each platform will need to service up to 25% more waiting passengers than there are today with higher frequencies. Some of our stations – particularly ones in the middle of reconstruction, such as Metrotown Station – could have trouble having to accommodate for additional waiting passengers.

Today's higher frequencies prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms.
Today’s higher frequencies help prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms on the Expo Line, as platforms will have to handle as much as 25% more waiting passengers.

While train lengths are increasing, I do see the possibility that overall service capacities will come down as a result of the changes. Going from 6 to 7.5 minute service in the mid-day and on weekends is a substantial 20% reduction in service frequency, and while Mark I trains would be operated in longer 6-car formation, the Mark II trains currently operating in 4-car formation would be essentially the same as they are today.

SkyTrain passengers already swallowed a change in 2013 that saw weekend frequencies on the Expo Line drop from 6 to 7 minutes on each branch, as part of a package of cost reductions implemented throughout the entire system to improve cost-efficiency. This has resulted in substantially increased weekend overcrowding, with Saturday PM volumes between Commercial-Broadway and Main Street-Science World stations now nearly at the line’s practical capacity in both directions (see: 2015 Transit Service Performance Review, Appendix E).

Why this makes absolutely no sense, whatsoever.

mark-ii-broadway
Prior to an expansion order in 2009, Mark II trains in 2-car formation were operated alongside Mark I trains on the Expo Line. SkyTrain had the flexibility to offer higher frequencies with the smaller trains, as opposed to lower frequencies with all of the Mark II trains in a 4-car formation.

One of the big advantages to the driver-less, automatic train control technology we use on our SkyTrain system has always been our ability to maintain high frequencies at any time of day, without high operating costs. On our system, shorter trains at higher frequencies can provide the same capacities as longer trains and lower frequencies typically found on other light and heavy rail systems, but without the higher costs associated with needing extra drivers and conductors.

This has made us a continental leader in providing rail rapid transit services among North American cities. I have previously noted that Metro Vancouver is unmatched in its off-peak rail transit service frequencies, when compared to metro areas of similar sizes – in which off-peak service on the rail network is generally provided every 10 to 15 minutes on individual lines.

SEE EXAMPLE
Portland, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are other metro areas similar in size to Metro Vancouver with rail transit systems, yet none of them are able to provide the kinds of service frequencies we have on our fully-automated SkyTrain system. Go [HERE] to see a comparison of our service frequencies against these cities’.

What can be done about this

TransLink is dealing with a public credibility problem and this is certainly not going to help their case. The entire service change on October 22nd is being made without a formal public consultation process, which wouldn’t really be so much of a problem if there weren’t going to be major changes in service frequencies on existing lines – but there are. And, there has been no indicated rationale as to why mid-day and weekend service frequencies are also being reduced.

I don’t see any barriers to continuing to provide a 6-minute service off-peak with the longer trains, or utilizing the existing schedule whereby peak service is operated at higher frequencies, with a mix of trains including shorter 4-car Mark I trains.

UPDATE Fri Sept. 23 @ 10:24AM: At the moment, the fabrics of how this decision went through are still unknown to me. However, I am now working on communicating with BCRTC and TransLink’s planning department to get some answers and gauge whether I could push to have this decision reversed.
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:

Montreal’s 67km driverless train system to be third longest in world

Montreal’s 67km driverless train system to be third longest in world

Proposed driverless train network cites Vancouver as model in case study


The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), an institutional investor responsible for financing major transportation projects in Quebec, has proposed the construction of a driverless rapid transit network, similar to our SkyTrain system, to service Greater Montreal.

The Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM; English: Metropolitan Electric Network) will span 4 proposed corridors and 67km. The system will serve several Greater Montreal cities and be the 3rd longest driver-less system in the world after the Dubai Metro and Vancouver’s SkyTrain.

The proposal will double the length of Montreal’s rail rapid transit network, and addresses the need for rapid transit to service areas in Greater Montreal where most commuters are driving to access the inner city, or are putting up with long bus and commuter train rides. The service will address the previously identified need to bring rail rapid transit across the Champlain Bridge, and bring new rapid transit to many areas of western Montreal that do not have any access to rapid transit currently.

Travel time savings and high service frequency were made key focuses in the CDPQ’s proposal, which outlined what kind of travel time savings would be achievable on each of the 4 proposed corridors:

Part of the project would involve the conversion of the existing Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line to integrate with the proposed rapid transit network. Similar to SkyTrain’s Expo Line, an existing rail tunnel will be repurposed in order to service the new rapid transit line (this tunnel currently carries the Deux-Montagnes line’s existing service). In addition to servicing 3 major suburban areas, the proposal includes a branch to the airport that fulfills an earlier proposal to build a Canada Line-like system connecting to the rest of Greater Montreal.

At a cost of $5.5 billion to build, the new line will represent a major investment in Greater Montreal rapid transit that will be the biggest since the Montreal Metro. However, Caisse, which was awarded the responsibility for financing major transportation projects in Quebec in an infrastructure deal last year, has offered to invest $3 billion – just over 50% of the project’s cost – into the REM project. Additional public investment would then be split between senior-level governments.

The massiveness of the CDPQ’s investment commitment shows that it is confident that the project will succeed. The CDPQ’s case study clearly identified the potential to bring serious benefits for transit riders, and its clearly identified rationale for choosing driverless train technology dignifies its success here in Metro Vancouver and around the world.

Download the case study

Significant improvements in transit service

Map of the new system, showing connection points with existing rail transit in Montreal

The new system is expected to have 150,000 riders on opening year (2021), 65,000 higher than currently exist on those corridors.

To fulfill the expectation that the system will raise this ridership, the CDPQ has designed the project with an intense focus on travel time benefits and rider comfort. Focus was placed on making sure trains were accessible all-day, every day, with the project advertising that service will run 7 days a week for 20 hours, and much more frequently than existing commuter rail service. CDPQ also focused on ensuring the system had quality amenities such as a free wi-fi network along the line for all commuters.

SkyTrain cited as inspiration

Montreal benefits
The REM case study cites SkyTrain as an example for development success.

In addition to the improvements in transit service, over $5 billion in economic development is expected to be attracted along the line, with Vancouver and the Canada Line cited as the primary example. The construction process is expected to contribute $3 billion to the GDP, and the reduction in road congestion is expected to reduce economic losses of $1.4 billion per year and 16,800 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Following the SkyTrain model

Caisse was one of the private investors in the private consortium chosen to build the highly successful Canada Line rapid transit project back in 2009. Caisse’s experience from co-investing in the Canada Line, and then co-experiencing its record ridership numbers well above target while billions in economic growth is spurred along the line, appears to be directly translating into the choices of station spacing, technology and level of investment on the REM.

These choices are remarkably similar to the ones that we have made with transit here in Vancouver – as an example, we also repurposed an existing tunnel for our driverless SkyTrain system – and would suggest that Greater Montreal is on its way to a transit future that is sustainable to maintain and feasible to expand. Here in Vancouver, we’ve managed to expand rail transit faster than every other city in Canada, while our system boasts an exceptional system ridership record that is envied throughout North America by other cities.

Just like our SkyTrain system, the system will make use of shorter trains (2-car trains off-peak, joined to form 4-car trains during peak hours) at a higher frequency, providing the same capacity as longer trains at a lower frequency.

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line
SkyTrain pioneered driverless train technology. Seen here, a 2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line. By sillygwalio, CC-BY

With 24 stations over 67km, the station spacing means that the REM is a cross between suburban/commuter rail and urban rail.

The new proposal in Montreal looks a lot like the Canada Line of our SkyTrain system.

The spacing is wider, resulting in faster service, in outer areas where rapid transit is competing against commuting by car and localized access is not its main purpose. However, it condenses in inner areas where the line can then double its purpose and act an urban rapid transit link. This is similar to what is done by our SkyTrain system here.

To top things off, the system includes an airport branch which is similar to what was done with our very own Canada Line. This approach to integrating airport service with other nearby urban rapid transit service is different from what was done in Toronto with the construction of its dedicated Union-Pearson Express train, which was heavily criticized for its high fares.

Train technology

REM cars

The concept 2-car trains (which are joined to form 4-car trains during rush hour) look similar to the Bombardier ART and Innovia trains being used here in Metro Vancouver. The system will share the same 80m platform lengths used by our Expo and Millennium Lines.

The project mentions that they will be “electric light metro” cars that use overhead catenary power, presumably to capitalize on the existing commuter rail infrastructure on the Deux-Montagnes line and through the Mount Royal Tunnel. While it’s plausible that the trains will be using conventional propulsion technology, the train size and specs suggest that linear motor train technology as used in our Expo and Millennium Line could be adopted.

A 2-car Tokyo Metro 01-series train now in service in Kumamoto. These trains were outfitted with overhead catenaries for Kumamoto’s railway, after using third-rail power for years on Tokyo’s busiest city subway line. By hyolee2, CC-BY-SA

Bombardier currently offers its Innovia Metro trains (used on our SkyTrain system) with third rail propulsion options, but it would not be difficult to modify the design to take overhead power. Existing third rail trains can be easily modified and outfitted with pantographs.

In Japan, which is home to the world’s most well-built railway and transit networks, this is done regularly when used trains are passed on from big city to smaller-scale transit operators.

As an example, last year a number of Tokyo Metro Series 01 train cars, which were used on the city’s busiest Ginza Line, were transferred to a local railway in Kumamoto, which required the installation of an overhead catenary and other modifications (whereas the previous metro line was a third-rail subway).

See also: Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge “LRT”

I have previously commented on how Montreal rail rapid transit projects have specified trains that are similar to those used on our SkyTrain system. This proposal, which actually encompasses many of the same corridors, continues that trend, and it is becoming increasingly likely that a full ALRT adoption is going to be used.

The cost rationale for going driverless

Driverless winning
The total length of automated metro lines is expected to triple by 2025.

Greater Vancouver pioneered driverless rapid transit when SkyTrain was introduced more than 30 years ago, utilizing what was then the latest technology developed by Alcatel and UTDC. Since then, other systems have been built in numerous cities around the world. According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), 35 cities around the world operated 52 automated metro lines, spanning over 700km, in 2014. This is expected to increase three-fold to over 2000km by 2021.

Automation brings many operational advantages, in particular, increased safety and flexibility in operation, unrivalled reliability, and more attractive job profiles for the staff on the line. Building on these strengths, metro operating companies can seize on automation as a lever for change at all company levels: operational, maintenance and customer service.
 
(UITP automation report)

One of the more obvious ways that a driver-less system saves money is with the reduction in staffing (no drivers on each of the many trains), headroom is created to operate much more frequent service during less busy weekends and off-peak hours, without incurring an operating cost penalty.

However, the REM’s design choices also show how driver-less train systems can also create the flexibility to save on the project capital cost while maintaining the highest quality of service.

The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines that merge into a single lane heading into Montreal City Centre.
The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines, which merge into a single line heading into Montreal City Centre.

With service frequencies as high as every 2 minutes in the central portion of the line through Montreal City Centre (and potentially higher as ridership increases), driver-less technology is what fosters the potential to combine the no less than 3 forking lines to the west, each already operating at a high frequency, into a single line heading into the city core.

Traditional, driver-operated commuter railways do not always benefit from the ability to merge lines, as the lower permitted frequencies and longer train sizes make running at such high frequencies prohibitive and infeasible. As an example, in Osaka, Japan, the 3 ‘Hankyu’ commuter train line branches serving the areas north of the main city enter the city core on a wide 6-track right-of-way, including a 6-track bridge over the Umeda River. Each line gets its own set of tracks and is operated separately from one another.

Osaka, Japan's 'Hankyu' commuter train lines have 3 branches that converge for the final segment into the City Centre. Each line gets its own set its tracks, and crosses the Umeda River into the city core on a 6-track bridge. Montreal's REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, with 3 forking lines merging into a single line and using driverless technology to travel into the city core at high frequencies.
The Hankyu bridge into Osaka’s Umeda Station. By GORIMON, CC-BY-NC

Montreal’s REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, utilizing driverless technology to have trains from 3 different lines travel into the city core at very high frequencies – without the need for separate tracks, additional tunnels and viaducts, and larger infrastructure, meaning costs and land footprint are significantly reduced.

It is clear why CDPQ is choosing a driverless, automated light metro system – the higher frequencies allow for capacities that are comparable or better despite shorter platforms, and compared to an investment in heavy commuter rail, the REM’s choice for driverless train technology could be saving billions upon billions of dollars.

Opening to public in 2020

Concept image of an REM station

One of the marvellous things about the R.E.M. plan is the speed at which the CDPQ wishes to set it up. With a clear business case and clear benefits presenting the opportunity to quickly approve funding from the provincial and federal governments, construction is expected to start in Spring of 2017, approximately 1 year from now.

The line will then open in 2020, with construction sped up by the well-planned re-use of existing rights-of-way and tunnels, and its integration with other projects such as the new Champlain Bridge.

Despite what could be seen as challenges due to the cost, the REM proposal, and the speed at which it will be ready for service, is a showcase of what happens when all parties can come together with a great plan and a great business case. Moreover, driverless train technology, which was pioneered and made extremely successful here in Vancouver, is the basis of this proposal.

See also: The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits

I think I am most delighted by the indication that driverless train lines are still worth building and make a lot of sense for urbanized cities. Many of Vancouver’s SkyTrain expansion critics seem to think that isn’t the case.

My guess is that once the REM is complete and its success plays out, its success could very well trigger a rapid transit planning revolution and the mass spread of driverless train systems throughout world cities. Canada will not only be the country that pioneered this technology – but also the world leader in implementing it, with two of the world’s longest driverless systems in Montreal and in Vancouver.

‘Everline’ SkyTrain transit system transforms Yongin City, Korea

^ New Yongin Everline promotional video (in Korean)

The 18km “Everline” rapid transit system in Yongin (near Seoul), South Korea, which utilizes the same “SkyTrain technology” trains used here in Vancouver, has celebrated its two year anniversary this past week – and along with that, city residents and officials have also been celebrating its positive effect in transforming the city of Yongin.

A new report published in English by the Korea Herald reports that the Everline is transforming Yongin City – helping to foster business growth and attract high-tech industries, encourage more people to adopt transit-oriented lifestyles and reduce congestion. The Everline is now meeting the ridership projection that was initially made in 2011.

Yongin, once regarded as a commuter town in Gyeonggi Province, is now developing into a business-centered metropolis equipped with a growth engine as it amasses infrastructure befitting a city of more than 1 million residents.

The development has been underway since Mayor Jung Chan-min took office nine months ago. The city is setting up several industrial complex centers including the Yongin Techno Valley currently under construction, and the once-dormant light rail ‘Everline’ is currently used by over 30,000 passengers daily.

[Yongin growing into business-centered city – The Korea Herald]

The Everline story: dismal beginnings

The Everline opened for service in 2013, after being unable to open in 2011 (the line had been fully constructed and in a ready-to-open state since before even then) and again in 2012, due to refusal from the City over issues with both construction and projected ridership (see INTERVIEW with Joongang Daily – Feb 2011). The delay was seen negatively by the Yongin Rapid Transit Company (YRTC), the line’s operator, which was awarded nearly $500 million in damages through the International Court of Arbitration, after suing Yongin City for delaying the opening of the line.

These issues, among others, gave the Everline a very dismal reputation among city residents – and a reportedly low ridership when the line was opened did not make things any better. One group of vocal residents, who were understandably not too happy about the delays and lawsuit, at one point called for the Everline to be dismantled altogether.

Yongin Everline Train
Although the Everline service operates at an exceptional frequency, trains operate with a single car and that has created even more dissatisfaction among critics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA Minseong Kim

But, according to The Korea Herald’s report, it turned out that one of the key problems with the Everline during its initial year of operation was a total lack of fare integration with surrounding transit systems. There was also no direct station-to-station connection or fare integration between the Everline’s terminus station in Giheung, and the nearby Giheung Station of the Bundang Line subway connecting to Seoul City Centre.

Both of these issues were fixed by late September last year, causing ridership levels on the Everline to increase by triple by this April, a period of just over 6 months.

Everline, the major light rail line of Yongin, opened two years ago, but it had been long regarded as a public nuisance with fewer than 10,000 users per day. After implementing the Metropolitan Unity Fare system in September last year, the number of passengers drastically increased. After one month, over 20,000 passengers on average used the light rail daily, and the number reached an average of 30,000 passengers last month.

The ridership is now close to meeting the latest daily ridership forecast of 32000, by the Gyeonggi Research Institute in 2011; and at this rate will surpass it some time this year.

This is very significant for Yongin, because one of the things that pressured the City into refusing to open the line in 2011 was the lack of confidence that it would meet this projection – the city’s internal projections of 10,000 daily riders disagreed with the Gyeonggi Research Institute. The Mayor stated the City did not want to open the line, expressing concern about the increased operating subsidy and a loss of revenue due to lower ridership.

When the line finally opened in 2013, Korean transit blog Kojects noted that the city’s projection had turned out to be true (see No Passengers on Yongin Everline – June 2013) – with the line recording just under 10,000 passengers daily. However, the fare integration with surrounding transit had not yet been implemented, despite its anticipation during previous attempts to open in 2012. Now that it has been implemented, the ridership level is now triple the city’s initial projections and nearly matches the projections set by the Gyeonggi Research Institute; it will handily surpass those projections within this year.

The Everline costs about $26 million to operate yearly, which is a relatively low cost made possible by driver-less train operation. As a result, it is now close to half-way to reaching its total “break-even” point when daily ridership hits 75000 (This is according to a Korean newspaper – [see here]). At 75000, fare revenues will 100% cover all operating costs, completely eliminating the operating expense for city taxpayers.

By comparison, here in Vancouver our SkyTrain lines have hit their break-even points and are covering their operating costs through fare revenue. The newest Canada Line, opened 2009 and using Korean-built trains from Rotem in two-car sets, hit its break-even point of 100,000 daily riders in 2011 (against projections of hitting this in 2013). However, our SkyTrain lines have opened on-time and on-budget. The Canada Line opened several months early, and was bolstered further by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Everline as an asset to Yongin City

Map of the Yongin Everline
Map of the Yongin Everline

On top of the recent fare integration, new efforts – including the promo video at the top of this post – have been made to promote the viability of the line to residents, many of them still bitter from having to wait years to ride and sitting through the handover of a major chunk of the city treasury.

It’s taken some time, but shuttle buses from the four main universities that are connected by the Everline, which previously were connecting to major transit centres, are now connecting to the Everline (According to previously linked report in Korean – [see link]), helping the universities reduce their transport costs. Activity on the line is increasing and there are now buskers performing at many of the line’s busier stations, fostering a lively urban atmosphere.

New developments on the line aim to take advantage of the Everline’s convenience. One multiple high-rise proposal, at the Everline’s junction with the Bundang Subway Line at Giheung Station, is expected to be a massive contribution to the line’s ridership (see report in Korean – [link])

The new Mayor of Yongin, who was elected to office 9 months ago, has supported the Everline and demonstrated its versatility by making the Everline a part of his own commute (the Everline has a station in front of Yongin City Hall), and has organized a citizens committee to make the best of the line now that it has been built. He has also used the Everline’s example to push for further rail investment in Yongin City – which may include further extensions of the Everline itself.

Everline trains consist of a single car, which is the same length as our Mark II cars but as wide as our Canada Line vehicles at 3.2m wide. The trains have been termed by some media and riders as “cute”, but derided by critics as being “more like buses”.

Nevertheless, trains run every 4 minutes during weekday peak periods, and no less frequently than every 6 minutes except during early mornings and late nights on weekdays and weekends. This is a higher quality service than many grade-level, driver-operated Light Rail systems. In addition, all stations are ready to accommodate 2-car trains.

Significance to Vancouver

Although the Everline operates an exceptional frequency, the fact that trains operate a single car has created additional dissatisfaction among critics.
You betcha that Everline train looked just a little too familiar. Look, linear motor rails!

The Everline has often caught the attention of transit observers in Metro Vancouver, noting the identical ‘SkyTrain technology’ from Bombardier being used on the new line.

Critics of SkyTrain expansion in our region were the first to jump on the Everline story, framing its issues as reasons that we should avoid expanding our SkyTrain system. I find it particularly ironic that it is the same kind of interference from municipal politicians – which resulted in the Everline’s shortfall as a Yongin City asset – that has been desired by critics referencing that shortfall as a way of stopping SkyTrain expansion.

But it should be clear that none of the problems with the Everline were the result of ‘SkyTrain technology’, or Bombardier. In his interview with Joongang Daily, the Mayor of the City in 2011 cited two reasons why the City was refusing to open the project: issues with ridership (which we now know to have been lack of integration), and issues with construction resulting in “noise and safety concerns”. These apparent construction issues were related to the elevated guideway structure and so a result of the construction contractor, not Bombardier or anything regarding ‘SkyTrain technology’.

Regardless of everything, the Everline has proved to be a successful transit system – and every day it carries more passengers and transforms life for more and more citizens in Yongin, it is turning around its dismal beginning of being a “failure” or a “white elephant” and becoming a true rapid transit icon in Korea.

I believe the Everline Story has two main lessons for all of us here in Metro Vancouver:

  1. “P3” transit projects must be carefully planned and considered. The Yongin Everline is essentially akin to a “what if the Canada Line P3 failed” scenario, with ridership not meeting projections – except the disaster was also kind of pre-empted as a result of fear of failure from the City’s politicians, the resulting delays in opening, and the lack of fare integration. The Canada Line did not fail because it was built on a well-demonstrated transit corridor (the previous 98 B-Line rapid bus was demand proof) and kept a promise to riders by mandating travel time improvements – the designer was actually required to orient its proposal around a set travel time value, and the Canada Line’s reliability in meeting that travel time was subsequently found to be the line’s #1 most-liked aspect in rider surveys. The City of Surrey should particularly be paying attention because it wants to use a P3 model on its proposed grade-level Light Rail system, which is more vulnerable to ridership not meeting projections than a grade-separated SkyTrain extension.
  2. The value of integrating transit fare systems. Major metro areas in North America like the San Francisco Bay Area are facing serious challenges dealing with multiple transit agencies, including major ridership losses due to the lack of integrated fares. We don’t have this problem in Metro Vancouver because of our system of having a single transit operator throughout history. As a result, TransLink is one of North America’s most efficient transit systems.

No Credit for TransLink: Nitpicking at the wrong details

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

In the latest fiery TransLink shake-up last week, Global News decided to investigate the transit operator’s executive car allowances, demanding more detailed information through a freedom-of-information (FOI) request.

According to the FOI, last year seven executives each received a monthly vehicle allowance of $950 to $1,200 to maintain their personal vehicles and get to their meetings.  When you include the executives parking expenses, the total bill equates to more than $94,000.

The new info added plenty of fuel to the TransLink hate-on, as critics began examining the numbers and coming up with all sorts of conclusions. Questions have been raised on the amount of the monthly allowance, and on why executive aren’t making more use of the SkyTrain station next to the corporate headquarters.

It was probably no surprise that the whole reveal was likely lead on by Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation critic Jordan Bateman, who lead the comments on Global’s news article and was allowed to make this blatantly rhetorical statement on TV:

“They want you to take transit, maybe so that you can clear the roads so that they can drive their fancy cars to their headquarters”

Seriously though?

Has anyone spared a thought that if a TransLink executive needed to get to a meeting in Clayton Heights or Langley, the reason they probably wouldn’t be taking the SkyTrain and the #502 bus is because it could displace another passenger down the road on one of the region’s most notorious routes for pass-ups?

A Reality Check

All sorts of taxpayer-supported government agencies and crown corporations are given a car allowance as part of their benefits – and TransLink’s executive allowances are not on the high end. I actually find it impressive that TransLink is being given only just over $1000 in monthly car allowances to roam around North America’s largest service area, whereas other taxpayer-supported authorities are being given far more for their cars.

Councillors in the City of Surrey have been getting twice that to roam largely within their own cities (in 2011, then-Councillor Marvin Hunt rang taxpayers over $2000 in car allowance expenses).

With the burning trails of TransLink hate bright in the eyes of many people, it’s no wonder that Global would run this story. It’s even worded and executed as if to try and convince people that it’s something new – that it’s something they don’t know. No doubt when people hear the words “freedom of information” or “FOI”, it suggests that whoever’s being questioned is trying to hide something – in this case, that it’s more money than what we already know is being paid. However, the remuneration numbers in TransLink’s salary disclosure document did include car allowances:

“Remuneration” includes any form of salary, wages, overtime pay, vacation, banked time payout, car allowance, cleaning allowance and other taxable benefit paid during the year. Certain remuneration does not include any non-taxable benefits or any amounts payable under a severance agreement (2013 TransLink salary disclosure, page 9)

That means that the car allowance number being reported by Global is a part of the reported base salary number – for reference, this number for CEO Ian Jarvis is about $330,000 (page 71). It’s merely a detail in an existing pay number that is being nitpicked at.

I know that executive pay rates in the midst of a transit funding crisis is an issue, but I want to raise this question: should this detail even matter? Especially with a referendum that could be dominated by a short-sighted anti-TransLink vote?

And, where is the news coverage on the details that really should matter? Whereas big television news and media outlets are quick to jump on anything that could be considered taxpayer waste by TransLink, when TransLink does something unique among transit agencies in Canada to save taxpayers millions of dollars they just don’t give TransLink credit where credit is due.

Wake up, Vancouver: TransLink is working to save you money

Just a few days ago, TransLink announced that it had pulled in $130 million through a unique method of revenue-raising: low risk bonds. TransLink is the only transportation authority in Canada to raise funds directly through safe and low-risk Canadian debt capital markets. The program helps fund needed capital investments and maintenance costs, and has saved taxpayers over $1 billion since 2010.

“The demand for our bonds reflects TransLink’s solid financial position, and it shows strong investor confidence in the organization,” said TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis in a statement. “This access to capital helps keep Metro Vancouver’s transit and road network moving and contributes to the maintenance of transportation assets so they serve the region for years to come.”

See also: TransLink raises $130 million in bond issue – Vancity Buzz

So far the only media outlet that is willing to bat an eye is the Vancity Buzz, and I think that really says something about the quality of the media we rely on today here in Metro Vancouver.

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment

See also: Vancouverites are spoiled by SkyTrain on Vancity Buzz

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line

Introduction

SkyTrain operates with high standards, transporting passengers with a remarkable 95% on-time performance rate and doing better at providing rapid public transit than other cities our size. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to system-stopping failures that can require the use of shuttle buses and inconvenience thousands of transit passengers.

Our SkyTrain system managed to suffer from two major system meltdowns within seven days, and it’s perplexed everyone. It’s raised questions of accountability and competence within TransLink, and of the versatility of how SkyTrain is operated. It’s raised questions of whether there could be a better plan for emergencies, so as to prevent frustration and inconvenience.

By far, a lot of the comments I’ve seen point fingers at TransLink. Provincial Minister Todd Stone was quick to deny responsibility, and looking through social media reveals an aura of madness from inconvenienced customers. All of this creates a dangerous precedent that a discouragement into putting more money into our transit system is created, as people begin to believe that proactively investing in it isn’t worth it.

However, some of the problems we faced in these past 7 days could have been mitigated by just that – with investments into good maintenance of our transit system.

With the province putting TransLink through audit after audit as part of a mandate to increase the system’s efficiency, it’s become more difficult to justify investments to keep the transit system and its employees running – with everything from a provincially-funded park & ride expansion to the provision of coffee for employees to public art being put through questions and a high-level of scrutiny.

The chaos that we witnessed during SkyTrain’s recent shutdowns can very much be attributed to a devaluation of transit funding, lead by anti-TransLink campaigners.

An explanation

TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that would have assisted SkyTrain in the event of computer failures. This would have spared riders from service meltdown incidents like the one on Thursday, July 17th.

To compound the issue, as part of the recommendations of several efficiency audits, TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when bus bridges are needed to deal with SkyTrain emergencies, there are fewer staff available to drive buses, and few buses available – which was an issue on both Thursday and on Monday, July 21st during the second, human-error-triggered meltdown.

It’s a no-win scenario for TransLink. A seamlessly-integrated backup system would not even require riders to be notified if SkyTrain were to have computer issues – and should the investment have been made known, an inevitable sensation surrounding the choice to invest – driven by anti-TransLink critics – is what we would be hearing about from the media instead. That would be the news item of the day, instead of a SkyTrain failure.

Meanwhile, continuing to provide adequate staff and buses to handle emergencies like the recent ones would go flat out against recommendations in recent audits – which could have triggered a harsh reaction from the provincial government, as they do directly control TransLink’s governance and some funding for transit.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one likes to ride a bus bridge – but it’s as important to have funding so that drivers and buses can be ready when we do need these.

Comments that put pressure on TransLink and portray them excessively negatively as an organization could result in more “NO” votes in the upcoming referendum next year. It may have become one of the reasons that TransLink has not undertaken investments proactively, spending money to prevent issues before they actually happen. As long as the public has yet to know of the real value of proactive transit investments, it’s difficult to do so without endangering long-term transit funding.

It’s a concern that has been raised by transit advocates and decision-makers, as they work hard to promote the value of transit investment in advance of this referendum. As a “NO” vote has been confirmed to be an option, there is nothing that can stop voters from using their vote to ‘send TransLink a message’ – something that would do commuters on all transportation modes no good whatsoever.

See also: Does TransLink have a bad brand? on South Fraser Blog
See also: TransLink Referendum: Can it win? What do we need to know? on Price Tags
See also: How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum? on Metro 604

Last month, on Thursday and again on Monday, critics were quick to rush to mediums such as Twitter, radio and news to lambast TransLink and remind us of past issues that have been raised. The resulting negative attitude that surrounds our transit system will not just affect how people vote in the upcoming referendum – it may have numerous negative shorter-term impacts such as the reduction of fare revenue, as less people choose transit and more believe that it is not worth doing so. Less fare revenue can mean more service cuts and even worse rider satisfaction throughout the system.

I have a strong feeling that there would be a backup computer system in place today, giving riders a more reliable SkyTrain system, were it not for the persistence of the anti-TransLink critic.

“Ironically, the people campaigning to strip TransLink of funding in the name of efficiency may be responsible for the time it took to get service restored and get people moving over the last few days.”

Nathan Pachal, who operates South Fraser Blog and is running for Council in Langley Township, raised this issue on his blog in his response to the recent incidents.

What do we do about this?

We’re surrounded by comments on how TransLink is “mismanaged”. In order to effectively combat the issues that this creates, it’s important to bring into light whether this level of scrutiny and demand for cost-efficiency is actually necessary.

In a previous blog article, I brought into light how it’s questionable if TransLink was being audited correctly, pointing out a discrepancy between how cost-efficiency has been portrayed and how it’s actually supposed to be measured – noting that between the transit operators in Canada’s three major cities, TransLink is the most efficient – providing the most service at the lowest operating cost.

See also: Was TransLink audited correctly?

It’s also important to bring into light what we should already know about TransLink’s efforts to be a better organization. We should know that TransLink is following up on the recommendations in the audits, and that those efforts are working – TransLink ended financial year 2013 with a $43 million surplus.

One of the most important changes that needs to be made is in public attitudes on transit spending. We can’t be ignorant to the fact that it is necessary to spend some money to keep our system in good repair.

For SkyTrain riders, the worst part of this devaluation of transit funding is that it has a major implication on our SkyTrain system that extends beyond $20 million.

As rail lines age and ridership grows, upgrades are needed to maintain efficiency and reliability long-term, and ensure the maintenance of the benefits provided by the system. TransLink has yet to secure a long-term funding commitment to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and unreliable as it continues to age. These upgrades will improve station facilities with new entrances and amenities, as well as prepare the system for longer 5-car trains. Some of these upgrades are ongoing, but the majority of them have yet to be started.

See also: Reality Check: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? on Vancity Buzz

Just as TransLink is looking for long-term funding to upgrade our SkyTrain system, so have other transit operators in Canada with their rapid transit systems. Calgary has made significant investments to extend C-Train platforms across the system for longer trains and refurbish old light-rail vehicles. Montreal is taking delivery of the first new subway vehicles to replace a fleet that is almost 40 years old. Toronto has been working to replace an aging 60-year-old subway signalling system and rebuild its busy downtown transit hub – Union Station – on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. Both projects have even required planned closures of the subway there.

Long-term funding to be committed to this upgrade is what will be decided in the provincially-mandated referendum, and it is imperative that voters do approve a funding option to keep our transit system in a good state of repair.

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
As costly as expanding and building infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investments have been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.

TransLink is in trouble

Some of the issues we faced in the recent SkyTrain meltdowns definitely had to do with more than funding, and perhaps they could have been addressed through better plans and higher competence within branches of TransLink.

However, the fact remains: if we want to maintain a high or higher standard of reliability, there’s going to be an inevitable cost to it. On the other hand, if we devalue the taxes and fares that keep people moving, we don’t get a reliable system as the penalty for our ineptitude.

As stakeholders, if we want to enjoy more reliable transit, we need to realize that TransLink is in trouble and change our attitudes on transit and funding. We need to value our transit, value TransLink, and consider the good value of the services it provides to us.

My Thoughts – Re: Transportation and the July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns

The July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns have probably perplexed a lot of people. In the past week, a lot of us bore witness to a level of chaos that I think had yet to be seen on the SkyTrain system in 28 years of operation.

We enjoy our SkyTrain service so much that I think that we have developed a collective expectation that things will always work out the way they’re supposed to.

Here are some of the responses I spotted on Twitter regarding the breakdown:

http://twitter.com/SantiHenderson/status/489950692669267969

http://twitter.com/BaD_KiTTy_MeLz/statuses/489943859783168001

http://twitter.com/CTVVancouver/statuses/489943945120874496

You can clearly see that there’s a lot of frustration; there’s a record of the incovenience. There’s an aura of madness that goes up in the air, as no one wants to be made late.

http://twitter.com/Charlesvancity/statuses/491315698174414848

We’re tempted to question the SkyTrain system. Bus drivers’ union leader Nathan Wood – who, on CKNW, raised an issue that Light Rail systems have outnumbered SkyTrain-type systems in terms of construction around the world, is just a bit concerned that our main rapid transit backbone can have trouble fostering a busy transit network. While his numbers on the amount of SkyTrain systems in existence are slightly off of the actual amount, I can see why people would want to raise those questions after a series of unique, 5-hour closures.

How much service was actually disrupted?

Reliability chart - SkyTrain vs other systems
Reliability chart – SkyTrain vs other systems. CLICK TO ENLARGE

You might have already seen this graphic, actually. I was wanted for a guest post on the Vancity Buzz, and had just finished creating this chart when the second consecutive major SkyTrain issue hit commuters Monday mid-day for what was unfortunately the second time in under 7 days.

SEE ALSO: Vancouverites are spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz guest post by Daryl

Usually SkyTrain is operating for 20 hours daily – and while it’s absolutely unfortunate that the recent issues that plagued SkyTrain commuters hit during busier times of day,  a 5.5 hour meltdown constitutes just over 25% of that service – meaning service was fine for the rest of the day. This is a far better record than what was achieved during the Portland transit meltdown of 3 weeks ago, where more than 60% of service fpr the day was not on time.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a 132 hour work-week for the SkyTrain. 5.5 hours represents approximately 4% of service provided for the week, and well under 1% of service provided for the entire year. We had this twice in one week – meaning 11 hours of service were not operated on time – but that still represents less than 0.2% of all service provided throughout the year.

SEE ALSO: Reality Check – Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? – Vancity Buzz

For the rest of the year, SkyTrain is operating normally – 99.4% of service is provided, with a 94.7% on-time performance rate. SkyTrain lets us down sometimes, but this isn’t actually happening a lot of the time. We enjoy reliable, rapid service that gets us where we need to go.

On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.
On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.

What should we do about this

There’s no question that issues and system shutdowns like this can be inevitable – so is there something that we can do about it? I think that there absolutely is – and looking at these issues, it seems that there’s a lot we can learn from this. For example – a lot of the time SkyTrain will fail, it impacts all riders because many bus lines connect to SkyTrain stations. A strategy to minimize delays during system shutdowns could involve the redirection or extension of bus routes to key areas to serve riders where they already are.

Normally, the best transit agencies can do when this happens is implement a shuttle bus bridge to repace the rapid transit service. This was the same procedure in Toronto and Portland, as pointed out above. The bus bridges are released as demand allows, but there’s no specific protocol that is followed in the event of a failure – meaning it can take some time before the bus bridges actually start, with passengers delayed until then.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one llikes to deal with slower shuttle buses replacing SkyTrain service!

But, it’s important to be prepared.

So, here’s an important disclaimer: I was lucky enough to not be there for both of these recent SkyTrain disruptions.

But, before you lambast me with comments of “you don’t know what we face!” or “try being on a train when it happened”, I would like to comment that I have seen my share of SkyTrain delays and disruptions before.

Prominent was the one that hit our system in April 2013, when a power rail issue in New Westminster halted trains on the system for close to an hour and required the deployment of shuttle bus bridges. I was on the problem train, and remember what it felt like as my train was passing the problem area and the electricity was suddenly cut. I remember how staff restarted the train and tried to move it past the area again, only for it to once again come to a grinding halt. I was heading from Surrey to the last showing of the theatre play at Windermere Secondary School, to see the performance and meet some friends in a yearly event that I consider to be something of a tradition. With the level of delays, I was unfortunately not able to make it to Windermere until the play ended.

It’s important to remember that transit isn’t the only form of transportation that isn’t always reliable. Accidents on key arterials or bridges can disrupt the flow of traffic in the region, especially when there are two or more bridges blocked at the same time. As a driver, you might know an alternate route that might be slower but will get you there with less congestion and less time waste. I think the same needs to be true for riders of transit.

Sometimes, there’s just no way to make it on time. Regardless, I still think it’s important to be somewhat prepared for when there are issues – and handle ourselves calmly and responsibly in times of crisis.

Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz
Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz

There’s an important message that can be had from the recent issues, one of which is a need for all of us to step back and realize that every possible way to get around has some sort of volatility. Even as we walk, we risk tripping on something that can temporarily impair our most basic ability to get around. The reality is, no matter how we choose to get around, we may run into issues. And, with the amount of money we sink into our demand to get around, it’s understandable why there’s such a high level of frustration when a transportation service you must rely on does not work out – not just on the SkyTrain but everywhere else.

Think about it. It’s true, right? So much of the money we earn goes towards the basic function of getting around. Transportation defines the way all of us live – so much that I think we don’t realize that it costs a lot of money to get around in this society. We take our transportation for granted – and for the younger ones, who may have benefited from the subsidized and discounted U-PASS, it’s especially not easy to realize this. However, this is the reality of the life we live. An average suburban household might spend more than 60% of income on the house and car – dealing with gas prices at all-time highs and ownership costs.

But where do I start?

It all starts with looking at where you live and where you might be going, and looking at your alternatives well in advance. For example: what are the bus routes near your house, and where can they take you. Which routes are your best options (accounting for frequency, speed, etc.) Or, if you live in Surrey and you tend to need to get across the Fraser River a lot, how much money can you set aside in case you need to pay for a cab to get across? If you vaule your money, what are the alternate bus routes to get you around once you do get across? (for example: the 123 from New West Station goes to Brentwood, or the 100 22nd St Station goes to South Vancouver).

As a society, we have to be anticipative of issues and have the knowledge to deal with it in real time – because often, transit authorities have limited resources and can’t always do that.

Appendix

Anyway, to conclude this, I’ve seen the comments to the Vancity Buzz post on Facebook, etc. and some of you asked for the sources for my on-time performance numbers – which I have listed below.

I know it’s questionable given I have omitted certain systems, so to clarify – if there’s a system I omitted, it may be because of the difficulty in actually finding the numbers (the internet, in a limited time frame, can only get you so far!) or due to measurement standards that weren’t too comparable (I was looking at adding some Light Rail systems in New Jersey to the list, but NJ Transit’s stats measure with poor standards that consider runs on-time even if they are 6 minutes early or late, so I chose to omit). Listed below:

Vibrant Communities, Productive Citizens: a Surrey Rapid Transit Vision

Surrey Rapid Transit Vision - Minimap

Background

(scroll down to read the vision!)

If you’ve read about me in any way, you’ll likely know about my issue with the Surrey at-grade rail (Light Rail Transit) proposal. It was the turnkey issue that became responsible for dragging me into a world of politics. As a stakeholder,  it motivated me to educate myself as best as I could about issues in the community, and is the reason why I pay attention.

My problem with Light Rail? As much as everyone seems to like the option – especially over a SkyTrain expansion – and as much as it DOES work well in many locations around the world, the reality of Light Rail in Surrey is that it won’t help us achieve ambitious goals (rather restricting us from getting to them ever); won’t move our people the most efficiently; and won’t give us the most benefits for the cost.

These aren’t wild claims; these are facts and stats that have been made clear in numerous studies, including TransLink’s Surrey Rapid Transit Study. So far, people across the city of Surrey – from stakeholders to big advocacy organizations like the Surrey Board of Trade – have disregarded these facts and stats. It really dismays me to see that over $5 million that was put into the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which was made specifically to compare the rapid transit options from a technical perspective – is largely going to waste.

One of the most alarming things about the proposal for me is that one of the proposed corridors (104 Ave to Guildford Town Centre) will actually see transit worsen with Light Rail, especially during its construction. It’s been a concern not just as a long-time resident of the Guildford area (and a rider on 104th Ave transit routes), but as a generally astute Surrey issues follower for the sake of citizens in all areas, and our region.

With over 5 years of advocacy of Light Rail Transit from numerous city organizations and politicians, stakeholders like me now face a situation where city organizations that control our future unanimously support Light Rail and unanimously disregard its serious downsides. Light Rail for Surrey was recently approved in the Mayors’ Council’s regional transit vision, which is why I believe the time for action is more urgent ever. It’s a perfect time, actually, with the next municipal elections only months away and the attractive lure of political discussion in this city being just around the corner. I think there’s a real potential to turn this around, and I think it has to be done more than ever.

So today I present you with a new Surrey Rapid Transit Vision: a vision that promises more practicality at a lower cost, and with more than twice the transit improvement benefits for our citizens. And, I plead that you don’t ignore this.

It’s the convergence of my best research, put together in a way that residents, current politicians and candidates for the upcoming Surrey municipal elections will be able to understand. In the following months you will be seeing me circulating this presentation to associations in the city and working hard to make this issue clear in advance of the next municipal elections. You’ll see me contacting potential Mayor and Council candidates,  current politicians, the media and stakeholders about this issue. You’ll see me working at this because I believe this is a big issue and people NEED to hear about it, right now.

Without further ado:

Vibrant Communities, Productive Citizens: A Surrey Rapid Transit Vision

(Recommended: Tap the icon on the bottom right to view in full screen!)

The consequences of this BC educational conflict are real

Above video: the Johnston Heights senior choir performs for students

At Johnston Heights Secondary in Surrey, where I completed my grade 12 education early last year, the ongoing disputes between teachers and the government have caused the cancellation of at least one major school event, one of which I was looking forward to attending: the year-end music (band and choir) concert.

The J.H. Music Program is one of the best in the city, having participated in numerous major provincial events such as MusicFest in Ottawa, 2010 (earning the silver award for both band and choir), several consecutive Kiwanis Music Festivals, and the Envision Jazz Festival in Surrey. As an alumni of this program and a member of both the senior wind ensemble and jazz band, I cannot stress enough how important the year-end concert is in the spirit of learning and school culture.

The year-end concert is a celebration of music and school culture, and it represents the culmination of a year’s worth of practicing, learning, dedication and team-building. It attracts other students, parents, and alumni who were in the music program to witness the music-making talents of a new generation of students who participate in the Grade 8, 9 and 10-12 senior bands; the grade 8, 9-10 junior and 11-12 senior choir; the chamber choir; the string ensembe; and the intermediate and senior jazz bands. The latter four are courses that are held outside of the school time and are the culmination of willful attendance, participation and commitment from both the teachers and the students who are involved.

With the school inaccessible outside of normal school hours (which is also preventing students from using the bandroom facilities for practice), this event has been put off indefinitely for the year 2014. It may be the first year in several consecutive years that the school music program did not hold a year-end concert, and I am sad to see that my peers aren’t going to be able to celebrate their hard work and dedication to music.

This is just one of the many inconveniences students have to face because of the ongoing conflict between teachers and the government. Not just now, but in the past several years of deteriorating school conditions.

North Surrey Secondary's 5 block schedule

At the North Surrey Secondary school here in Surrey, too many students and an overcrowded school building have forced the school to adopt an awkward five-block schedule [CLICK HERE]. NSSS staggers students across the 5 blocks, so that older students study for the first four and younger ones for the last four (or combinations with study blocks).

I have often – in letters to the editor, and in other posts on this blog – discussed the realities being faced by students not just in the current conflict but on a year-by-year basis. Not far from Johnston Heights Secondary and at North Surrey Secondary, 5-block schedules are needing to be adopted to deal with increased overcrowding, lack of facilities, and growth in the community.

In the same manner as North Surrey, many schools have been forced to make serious, critical cuts to deal with cut funding levels and increased teacher stress. I’m not sure if North Surrey still requires a 5-block schedule this year, but I was hearing about it from numerous close friends when I was in high school – and I was also hearing about the troubles this schedule gave them – troubles in scheduling conflicts and stress.

See also: The Real Reason Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

One of the dangerous criticisms I’m hearing in the current debate is how kids are being used as “bargaining chips”, resulting in the implication that the teachers fighting their battle over class sizes and competition and pay levels are careless.

However, critics also forget that many teachers have kids too – and these kids are as much participants in the pubic education program as the ones who are being taught. Many of the teachers I personally knew were parents of one or more kids, and a few of them gave birth to new kin while I was in my high school years. In the short term, these kids will theoretically suffer as much from their parents’ course of actions as the rest of the students participating in this school system, and I think it shows that what the teachers are fighting for is more than just their own living conditions and demands. I think it is evident that it is also about good learning conditions for their kids and ours.

Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge “LRT”

After Côté tribute, council debates Champlain Bridge transit

BY RENÉ BRUEMMER, GAZETTE CIVIC AFFAIRS REPORTER MAY 26, 2014

MONTREAL — The start of Monday’s monthly city council meeting was dedicated to a man who never served as an elected official but whose life left an enduring mark on a city he loved.

After his homage, a large part of the meeting was dedicated to the question of putting a light-rail transit system on the new Champlain Bridge, a topic close to the heart of Marcel Côté. [READ MORE – The Gazette]

In the City of Montreal, City Council is at odds as to what type of transit should complement the replacement of the dangerous Champlain Bridge, which has come under increased scrutiny after the federal government announced its funding.

SEE ALSO: Federal budget promises fix for Montreal’s aging Champlain Bridge, new Windsor-Detroit border crossing – National Post

Montreal’s transit authority is pleading the City Council to vote in favour of a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system on a replacement for the crumbling Champlain Bridge, whereas some stakeholders prefer a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The LRT line, initially meant to provide an alternative transit option for the corridor with no Champlain Bridge replacement, has been in the planning stages since before the need to replace the bridge was identified.

I was reading about this and came across a concept image for the proposed highway median LRT system, on the official website for the proposed line. The yellow-coloured train looks suspiciously like a Mark II SkyTrain vehicle in a 5-car configuration:

CONCEPT IMAGE - Champlain Bridge LRT, taken straight off of the AGENCE MÉTROPOLITAINE DE TRANSPORT website
CONCEPT IMAGE – Champlain Bridge LRT, taken straight off of the AGENCE MÉTROPOLITAINE DE TRANSPORT website

I did some further digging and found that this image is repeated in the preliminary design studies for the light rail transit system, which is comprehensively suggesting that the desired specifications of the new “LRT” line are fully compatible with linear induction motor propulsion (“SkyTrain technology”) and will be using similar rapid transit vehicles.

SEE ALSO: Highway 10/Downtown Montreal Corridor LRT study

This is made evident by a number of items on the project’s list of desired performance criteria on page 32:

• an attractive service operating at a high commercial speed (over 50 km/h) and a high maximum speed (100 km/h);
• a high frequency (intervals less than every 3 minutes at rush hour);
• a high level of safety thanks to guide rails, an exclusive track, automated operating systems and anti-collision devices;

and on page 55:

3.4.1 Operating mode
Automatic train operation has been retained because, among other things, it allows for reduced service intervals and running
times, increased flexibility for adjustments of timetables and intervals, as well as improved safety, better controlled accelerations,
and greater passenger capacity in each train set.

and on page 56:

3.4.7 Car performance requirements
…The design load of the cars (seated passengers + four standees/m2) is 131 passengers per car. Each train will be made of 5
cars and will therefore have a capacity of 655 passengers.

Notice how this is exactly the passenger capacity of a Mark 2 vehicle.

With 80-90m platforms, frequencies less than 3 minutes, 5-car trains, and high-floor cars on a fully grade-separated right-of-way with 6% slopes… almost everything matches. You name it, SkyTrain has it, and Montreal’s Champlain Bridge “LRT” is also going to have it.

Studies have identified that the proposed rapid transit line, which will be fully grade separated, has a positive benefit:cost ratio of 1.11:1. It is 15km long, and advertises a travel time of just 18 minutes from the outbound terminus to Montreal City Centre.

Montreal Champlain LRT recommended alignment
Montreal Champlain LRT recommended alignment – taken from study

Why this matters

You may recall that I recently started a new blogseries called The Problem with SkyTrain critics, which comes at a time when several SkyTrain or other rapid transit expansions are being debated here in Metro Vanouver. One of the problems I have identified with SkyTrain critics (and will be discussing shortly in more articles on the matter) are the numerous dubious claims of SkyTrain’s “obsolescence” – SkyTrain critics claim that the technology, which was developed in the 1980s, no longer has a place in rail rapid transit planning.

SkyTrain criticsdeny SkyTrain’s potential as a high-quality rapid transit system that generates billions of dollars in transportation, developmental and economic benefits. They clutter our blog-feeds, newsletter sections and comments with endlessly varied suggestions to perpetuate the belief that SkyTrain simply isn’t the best option for investment.

SEE ALSO: The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits Part I

But, this is the second example I have uncovered as of late that shows that the technology we use in SkyTrain is becoming a serious rail rapid transit option for cities worldwide. In another recent blog article, I brought to light that Kuala Lumpur [SEE HERE] has approved an additional 36km of SkyTrain expansion in addition to the ongoing 17km extension of the Kelana Jaya Line. Other extensions are taking place in Sendai, Japan and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Guangzhou Metro recently opened a new metro line using SkyTrain technology, which already carries over 700,000 passengers daily.

The success of SkyTrain (in particular, the Canada Line) has also inspired the Montreal airports authority to advocate for a light metro-type shuttle to the airport.

SEE ALSO: Montréal-Trudeau Airport Light Rail Shuttle Study
The JFK AirTrain was one of the rapid transit systems mentioned in the Champlain LRT study as a reference, alongside the Millennium Line and Canada Line in Vancouver.
The JFK AirTrain (which uses SkyTrain technology) was one of the rapid transit systems mentioned in the Champlain LRT study as a reference, alongside the Millennium Line and Canada Line in Vancouver.

The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits

I think I’ve pretty much seen it all: unfound claims on SkyTrain’s financial burden, claims that entire tram networks could be built at the same cost as a SkyTrain extension (ignoring the impracticalities of trying to conduct such a massive replacement of buses without ever improving transit speed), and other alternate light-rail transit (LRT) proposals that just don’t make any practical sense.

SkyTrain is constantly being challenged, and this contention has had a phenomenal effect in getting people involved with transit planning matters. Some of the biggest names we know in Metro Vancouver transit issues discussions – the ones you might hear about in newspapers; examples include: Paul Hillsdon, Nathan Pachal, Jordan Bateman, John Buker – are or at one point have been motivated by a criticism of SkyTrain rapid transit.

If there were no one to respond to these criticisms and unearth the problems with such a viewpoint – as I am doing so now – the quality of transit planning in Metro Vanouver would deteriorate to the point where perhaps no disagreement would be had on transit projects; and consequently, little progress would be made in changing communities and peoples’ lives for the better.

Denying the Benefits

SkyTrain critics deny SkyTrain’s potential as a high-quality rapid transit system. They don’t even want to see it acknowledged that SkyTrain generates billions of dollars in transportation, developmental and economic benefits. They clutter our blog-feeds, newsletter sections and comments with endlessly varied suggestions to perpetuate the belief that SkyTrain simply isn’t the best option for investment.

They’re often proponents of Light Rail Transit (LRT), an alternative option that could allow rail transit to be built in a somewhat more flexible manner (including at-grade and on-street), who are quick to bring forward the positives of community-building, lower capital cost and less obtrusive (at-grade) infrastructure as upsides when compared to SkyTrain.

Can LRT be an appropriate solution in the transit planning sense? Absolutely. That should be quite obvious: there’s a reason why light rail investments are so popular around the world, with hundreds of proposals to reference at any time. However, the versatility of LRT should not be resulting in the dismissal of SkyTrain as another great – and often better – solution to addressing transportation problems, especially here in Metro Vancouver.

And yet, the critics are relentless in their criticisms. . Worse – they’re ridiculing and, apparently, finding reasons to shame our system and the way we’ve built it. These are the worst kind – the kind that try to deny altogether that building SkyTrain has provided Metro Vancouver with any benefits – and the ones who should arguably be disallowed from participating in public policy debacles, because they seem to have no understanding of what has been happening here in Vancouver for the past 30 years.

Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced by the introduction of SkyTrain. In the past 9 months I have spent living in Burnaby, I have witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises.
Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced positively by the introduction of SkyTrain. During the year I spent living in the Burnaby area, I witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises. You can see many of them in this photo.

Sample contentions by SkyTrain critics that are incorrect

1. SkyTrain hasn’t gotten people out of their cars.

TransLink’s trip diary data is a difficulty: there is little bearing that can be had about the accuracy of the measurements (this is a sample size) and the types of commutes that were recorded (i.e. are they commutes to work, shopping, and at what time of day/day), but nevertheless, it is a valid source. It’s used by TransLink and Metro Vancouver in regional planning matters,  and is and often utilized by SkyTrain critics. As SkyTrain critics have been quick to point out, the 2011 value is only 3% higher than the valule recorded in 1994 – the year SkyTrain was expanded across the Fraser River and into Surrey. It’s tempting, when you look at this, to think that SkyTrain has failed us in serving its original purpose.

The problem with these numbers is that they really don’t tell the whole story.

The trip diary draws data from 22,000 households in the region, and is meant to take a “snapshot” of a day in Metro Vancouver transportation. It is a partial survey – it’s not the same as the much more accurate ‘journey-to-work mode-share’ numbers collected by Stats Canada from every household, which show that transit mode share in Metro Vancouver is a bit higher than that collected in the Trip Diary and – together with walking and cycling – has grown significantly since 1996.

Closer studies have suggested that the biggest impact in transit modal shift is coming from SkyTrain and SkyTrain expansion. The City of Vancouver has also collected more specific numbers [Vancouver Transportation Plan Update – CLICK HERE] that not only show a big increase in transit ridership from outside of the city (i.e. connected by SkyTrain) – but also that the amount of motor vehicle trips actually declined for the past decade, despite population growth.

An even closer 2009 study [Niko Juevic SFU study – LINK HERE] that more closely looked at households within both 400m and 1500m radii of Expo and Millennium SkyTrain stations showed even more significant changes – outpacing transit modal shift across the region. The opening of the Millennium Line SkyTrain had a phenomenal effect on the surrounding area: within a 1500m radius of each station, transit mode-share had nearly doubled 4 years after the line opened – growing at more than 4x the regional average rate.

I compiled a summary of these numbers in the graphic below:

Modal shift in Vancouver - data compiled from Statistics Canada, Metro Vancouver and 2009 study by Niko Juevic

2. 80% of SkyTrain riders are recycled bus riders

South Surrey Park and Ride's Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr
351 buses at Bridgeport Station wait to depart for South Surrey Park & Ride. Photo credit: Flickr – Stephen Rees

While I’ve never really been able to track a definitive source for this statistic (I have seriously only ever heard it from one SkyTrain critic group), I see it repeated in discussion circles and used as justification that SkyTrain is weak at attracting ridership. SkyTrain critics have repeated this number to contend that the majority of riders on the SkyTrain were already taking transit before the line was built, claiming that this is “double the industry standard” – and were extremely vocal in certain situations where SkyTrain expansion replaced one or mutliple bus routes, especially in the case of the Canada Line (which replaced express segments for multiple south-of-Fraser bus routes heading into Vancouver).

Firsty, I have never understood why such a vague 80% number is being portrayed as a weakness. In the City of Calgary, a single centralized high-density core and the most expensive downtown parking in North America combine with free park-and-ride facilities along Light Rail Transit lines to give the Calgary C-Train the majority of its nearly 300,000 daily boardings. The Calgary C-Train is a versatile system and many of its riders have chosen to use transit, but not for their entire commute – the first segment of their trips is more often being done by car than by bus, walk or bike.

If the majority of SkyTrain riders are taking other transit to get there first, then that is at least as much a strength as much as it is a weakness (and, very likely, very much more a strength) – because this kind of transit commute coherency is simply not being replicated by other rail transit systems.

The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day - but outside of the city core, Park'n'Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website
The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day – but outside of the city core, Park’n’Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website

Secondly, this claim – at least in the case of the Canada Line – certainly doesn’t hold up to collected ridership numbers.

Passenger measurements by Canada Line operator ProTransBC collected by the Richmond Review were showing that Canada Line ridership in its first few weeks averaged 77,000 – meaning over 55% of today’s ridership numbers were already on board the Canada Line before September 7th, 2009 – when the 98 B-Line and 490-series express routes were terminated, and the many South-of-Fraser express buses (351, 601, etc) were terminated at Bridgeport rather than continuing to downtown Vancouver.

These bus routes make up only a small percent of the Canada Line’s total ridership – the vast majority were choosing to ride the Canada Line before any of these buses were transferred to terminate at Bridgeport or eliminated. A rider survey conducted in 2011 indicated that 40% of those surveyed were new to the system – that being, they previously drove and did not take transit at all for that commute – and that riders’ biggest vaues for the system were speed, frequency and reliabillity.

With the cancellation of the 98 B-Line and associated peak-hour express routes, it’s true that a number of the Canada Line’s passengers were riders of the previous bus-only system; however, this is something that needs to be expected from all rapid transit projects regardless of technology and alignment. Each and every SkyTrain line, C-Train Line, Portland MAX line, etc. replaced a previous bus service and took in riders from that bus service.

Claims like this also downpay the benefits being provided to any previous bus riders, whose faster commutes are fostering increased productivity, lower stress levels and better comfort. For most of the first month of operation, the 98 B-Line continued its operations alongside the new Canada Line until its termination on September 7th. Riders had the option of continuing to ride the 98 or take the new SkyTrain – and as evidenced by ridership numbers that averaged more than double what the 98 B-Line carried before the new SkyTrain opened, the majority of 98 riders were opting for the faster ride.

The proof is in the ridership

A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station - photo by Larry Chen, license obtained
A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station – photo by Larry Chen, license obtained

See also: Surrey’s Next Mayor should Push for SkyTrain – Surrey Leader letter

The Canada Line, which was introduced just 4 years ago, is already a Vancouver icon; a part of this city’s fabric of life. It’s hard to believe that less than 5 years ago, the link between downtown Vancouver and Richmond was a miserable bus trip that took as long as the SkyTrain’s Expo Line took to travel nearly twice the distance to Surrey. As a daily rider of the Canada Line to reach Kwantlen University in Richmond (and again later in the day to go from there to work downtown), the Canada Line’s benefits are evident to me in person. I don’t have to worry about potential traffic issues heading into Vancouver that can make buses (or even light rail trains) late – and neither do the 121,999 others who ride with me each and every day.

Riders, stakeholders and decision makers have been clamouring to build something similar and soon under Broadway between UBC and Commercial-Broadway Station. Support has been near unanimous, because previous experience with SkyTrain has shown us that we can be confident about the expanding the system.

Local mayors who were concerned that the expense of SkyTrain would make TransLink’s assets like electric trolleys “crash” were proved wrong when the Canada Line exceeded ridership expectations well ahead of time.

In walks of transit planning and provision, I have always thought that SkyTrain isn’t getting enough credit for what it does. SkyTrain has been part of why Metro Vancouver has lead North American cities in transit ridership. We rank third in transit trips per person per year, behind only New York and Toronto.  We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – cities with full-size metro systems – and far ahead of cities with only LRT systems. This has grown from 4th in 2006.

We are achieving great things because we approved the construction and expansion of the SkyTrain system. Which is why making sure SkyTrain critics who mess up the facts do not get a grip on transit-planning decision makers is my top priority for this year.